The fall of Dhaka was inevitable: now is the time for soul-searching
The creation of Pakistan came about under extraneous circumstances. The departure of the British from the Indian subcontinent had become imminent after they suffered the economic ravages of WWII while the ‘Quit India' movement spearheaded by Hindus became louder to reach a deafening crescendo.
Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the undisputed leader of the Indian Muslims, was caught in a major dilemma. Initially a strong proponent of united independent India, he soon realised that for Muslims of the subcontinent, freedom would only mean a change of masters.
Hindus would replace the British and seek vengeance from Muslims for having subjugated them to centuries of rule. The other factor, unknown to all apart from his devoted sister Fatima Jinnah and his personal physician, was that the Quaid was suffering from a terminal disease and the clock was ticking fast.
If the secret of the Quaid’s serious illness had leaked, the British and Hindus would only have delayed the process of independence till the Quaid’s demise and there would have been no Pakistan. Thus, the Quaid was constrained to accept what many critics label as a ‘moth eaten Pakistan’.
The biggest flaw in the partition plan was accepting the two wings of an independent Pakistan separated by a thousand miles of hostile Indian territory, devoid of even a narrow corridor linking them.
This aspect proved critical when India surreptitiously stopped over-flight rights to Pakistani aircraft and imposed a naval blockade of East Pakistan just prior to the 1971 Pak-India War, barring West Pakistan from transferring logistic supplies to its beleaguered Eastern wing; but that comes later.
Certain decisions taken by the now terminally ill Quaid – in the last throes of his life – because he had burnt the candle at both ends to gain Pakistan's independence are at times faulted.
Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, with his prescience, to keep the newly founded Pakistan united as a single nation, had declared Urdu as the national language of the country. Unfortunately, during his lifetime, the Bengalis objected to the imposition of Urdu as the state language and started agitation, forcing the Quaid to visit Dhaka to resolve the issue. On March 21, 1948, addressing a mammoth public meeting, he reiterated:
“Let me restate my views on the question of a state language for Pakistan. For official use in this province, the people of the province can choose any language they wish ... there can, however, be one lingua franca, that is, the language for inter-communication between the various provinces of the state. ..the state language, therefore, must obviously be Urdu, a language that has been nurtured by a hundred million Muslims of this subcontinent which, more than any other provincial language, embodies the best that is in Islamic culture and Muslim tradition and is nearest to the languages used in other Islamic countries.”
He went on to warn that there are fifth columnists, who are trying to exploit the language controversy in order to stir up trouble. Their sole object in exploiting this controversy is to create a split among the Muslims of this state, as indeed they have made no secret of their efforts to incite hatred against non-Bengali Mussulmans.
Unfortunately, the selection of Urdu as the national language, which was supposed to be a unifying force, had the opposite effect, because the Bengalis wanted recognition of their language too, and were egged on by agent provocateurs.
Alas, the Quaid expired on September 11, 1948 and Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated on October 16, 1951. Ironically, Liaquat Ali Khan’s successor Khwaja Nazimuddin, a Bengali, staunchly supported the Urdu-only policy. Thus, the remonstration against the imposition of Urdu as the state language persisted, reaching its climax in the killing of six protesting students by police firing on February 21, 1952.
Two facets acted as catalysts in expediting the final split. Firstly, the genuine grievances of the East Pakistanis were exploited by India in deepening the wounds and spreading rancour and acrimony
Agitation and protests continued till on May 7 1954, the constituent assembly resolved, with the Muslim League's support, to grant official status to Bengali, which was adopted as an official language of Pakistan along with Urdu in article 214 (1) when the first Constitution of Pakistan was enacted on February 29 1956. The seeds of dissension, however, had been sown.
Consequential language riots claimed numerous precious Bengali lives; around whose mausoleum (Shaheed Minar) later generation of Bengali freedom fighters would rally around. Simultaneously, the national leadership's obsession with 'parity' between the two wings (to offset the east’s numerical advantage) not only delayed the formation of Pakistan’s constitution but also widened the chasm of divide.
An arrogant superiority complex by West Pakistani officials towards their East Pakistani counterparts only vitiated relations. Cultural, linguistic, ethnic and mental differences between the inhabitants of the two wings pushed them further apart.
Two facets acted as catalysts in expediting the final split. Firstly, the genuine grievances of the East Pakistanis were exploited by India in deepening the wounds and spreading rancour and acrimony.
Secondly, certain West Pakistani politicians, faced with the possibility of an East Pakistani-led leadership ruling Pakistan – as a result of the ‘relatively free’ and fair 1970 elections – blocked the military government’s handing over power to the victors of the polls, forcing East Pakistan to declare its independence as Bangladesh.
Partings are always difficult, but between East and West Pakistan, where Bengalis were patriotic nationalists to the core, were forerunners of the Pakistan Movement, it must have been extremely painful to defy the very principles and values die-hard East Pakistani leaders had aspired to uphold.
Hindsight is 20/20, but had good sense prevailed with the West Pakistani leadership and the East Pakistanis – being volatile and emotional in nature allowed their grievances to be exploited by bloodthirsty Indians – the outcome would not have been gory.
An amicable solution could have been reached sans the carnage which both sides accuse each other of. Saner elements like Vice Admiral Syed Mohammad Ahsan, then-Governor of East Pakistan in early 1971 and the commander of the East Pakistan Military, Lieutenant General Sahabzada Yaqub Khan, who understood the ground situation very well, presented what is known as Ahsan's Formula — a peace initiative to end the political crises in East Pakistan to avoid international humiliation of Pakistan and resolve the differences through dialogue.
The peace proposal came in the wake of increasingly strained and difficult relations between West Pakistan and East Pakistan since civil unrest had gripped East Pakistan amid Awami League's demonstrations and demands for provincial autonomy against Pakistan's central administration after the general elections held in 1970.
The recommendations of the Ahsan Formula were roughly based on the six-point proposal by Sheikh Mujib in 1969 and called for:
• Center would control the defence, military, foreign, national security, and the currency.
• Province(s) would have the authority to raise revenue and would fund the subject of the federation.
• Repatriation of West Pakistani citizens and bureaucrats to West Pakistan with East Pakistanis stationed in West Pakistan, back to East.
• Equal divisions of national assets between West Pakistan and East Pakistan based on population census.
The formula was supported by the political leaders of West Pakistan, except for Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who had achieved far less seats than Sheikh Mujib. But since he was a clear leader in West Pakistan, apparently, he eyed becoming the Prime Minister if Sheikh Mujib was disqualified for leading an insurgency or East Pakistan broke away.
Ahsan’s Formula was also not supported by the hawkish military elements in the Yahya administration who debated acrimoniously over the scope of the mission's recommendations and were hell-bent on use of force to 'crush the rebellion'.
The mission's recommendations were bypassed; resultantly, Admiral Ahsan submitted his resignation and was posted back to West Pakistan, followed by the resignation of Lieutenant General Sahabzada Yaqub Ali Khan in early March 1971, who was replaced by then Lieutenant General Tikka Khan, who had no qualms in the use of force to suppress the insurgency.
The Bengalis or as now more evidence is available, Indian RAW operatives, in the guise of Mukti Bahini along with specially trained Bengalis commenced the massacre of non-Bengalis and Pakistan Army personnel posted in East Pakistan from the beginning of March.
‘Operation Searchlight’ commenced with full fury on March 25, 1971 in retaliation to the massacre of non-Bengalis and Pakistan Army personnel.
History will judge, as to who fired the first bullet. Tikka Khan launched his forces trying to wrest the control of East Pakistan and apparently succeeded. Having ‘completed’ his mission, he made way for Lieutenant General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, euphemistically known as ‘Tiger Niazi’ for his supposed bravery. Niazi was posted as GOC East Pakistan Command on April 11 1971.
Admiral Ahsan, who had served as aide-de-camp to the last Viceroy to India, Lord Mountbatten and later as aide-de-camp to Pakistan’s first Governor General, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and later still as Pakistan’s Naval Attaché at Washington DC, was well versed with the nuances of politics, diplomacy and good governance.
In an article titled ‘A nation's shame’ published in Newsline magazine in September 2000; Ahsan concluded:
"But who was responsible for creating this hostile atmosphere and hatred among the people? The situation deteriorated further after General Yahya Khan postponed the first session of the newly elected constituent assembly. It became very clear immediately after the election results that the generals were not prepared to transfer power to the Awami League. First the delay in summoning the National Assembly session and later its postponement confirmed the Bengalis' worst fears, that the election results were not acceptable both to the generals and to the majority of West Pakistani politicians. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto publicly called for a boycott of the assembly session. Such a transgression was bound to further fuel public resentment."
Similarly, Admiral Mohammad Shariff, who was Rear Admiral at that time, and the principal commander of Navy of East Pakistan, released his autobiography, entitled, 'Admiral's Diary'. In his memoirs, Admiral Shariff concluded:
"The initial military success in regaining the law-and-order situation in East Pakistan in March of 1971 was misunderstood as a complete success. In actuality, the law-and-order situation deteriorated with time, particularly after September of the same year when the population turned increasingly against the army as well as the government."
The initial advantage gained due to ‘Operation Searchlight’ was squandered as India continued to prepare for war and increased its subversive activities in East Pakistan.
Thus, when India finally launched a military offensive in East Pakistan in November 1971, the beleaguered Pakistani Armed Forces, outnumbered, outgunned and outplayed, capitulated on December 16 1971. Unfortunately, Lieutenant General ‘Tiger Niazi’, who had promised to defend East Pakistan to the last man; when the crunch came, was rather quick to sign the instrument of surrender to his Indian counterpart, Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora and let India take 34,000 Pakistani POWs and the spoils of war.
Since Bangladesh itself was not allowed to prosper and set itself on the path of progress by its neighbour India, which in the garb of supporting the cause of the liberation of Bangladesh actually wanted to dismember Pakistan.
India later supported strife, coup d’états and bloody revolutions since it demanded its pound of flesh for its purported role in the war of liberation, plotting to install a puppet government in Dhaka, which would dance to the tunes of its Indian masters; a fact corroborated by Narendra Modi recently.
Meanwhile, counter coups passed the baton albeit reluctantly to progressive Bangladeshi leaders, who wanted to bury the hatchet with Pakistan and move on.
Such a state of affairs was anathema to India, which desired an unstable Bangladesh with a government visibly and concertedly hostile to Pakistan. Meanwhile, in a bloody revolution, the founder of Bangladesh was assassinated along with his whole family apart from two daughters, who were abroad. His elder daughter Sheikh Hasina Wajid was brought back in 1981 and nurtured to toe the Indian line.
Her first stint as Prime Minister (1996-2001) was uneventful since she proved inefficient and inept. Groomed by her puppeteers, she was finally unleashed in 2009 to become the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Her stint was marred by a revolt of the Bangladesh Rifles, which was countered with brute force and charges of acute corruption and poor governance, yet she won the next term in 2014, unopposed because the opposition boycotted the elections.
This drama was allegedly choreographed by India since now Hasina was playing ball despite accusations of sleaze and inefficient running of her government. She boycotted commercial, diplomatic and social moots with Pakistan, taking the plea that Pakistan must apologise for its alleged war crimes including genocide of three million Bengalis and the rape of thousands of Bengali women.
To pour salt into the wounds, Sheikh Hasina leveled charges of treason against the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami for supporting the cause of united Pakistan during the 1971 war. Four leaders have been sent to the gallows by kangaroo courts and numerous others are on the death row despite calls by international jurists condemning the derision of justice.
The inevitability of the creation of Bangladesh was a reality, which should have been accepted wholeheartedly by the secessionists as well as the people and leaders of West Pakistan.
As discussed earlier, since the severance of ties was so bloody that good sense was occluded by vindictiveness. It is a fact of recorded history that both the secessionists and the Pakistan Army carried out excesses. The secessionists targeted the non-Bengali population and the West Pakistani civilians and Armed Forces personnel while the Army, in its frenzy of retaliation, carried out a bloody carnage. The figures for genocide and rape being quoted by both sides are a gross exaggeration; the claim of three million Bengalis being massacred by Pakistani troops in 1971 is farfetched.
Declassified US reports, Indian and Pakistani military officers’ accounts, General Niazi’s memoirs and a number of published books and articles like Subversion in East Pakistan, by AMK Maswani and Sarmila Bose’s Dead Reckoning specify that both Pakistani forces and Bengali insurgents were responsible for cold-blooded genocide of civilians and their military counterparts. Yet, taking advantage of a pro-India Government in Bangladesh, macabre forces have been bent upon raking up old scars in order to humiliate Pakistan and appease India.
Historical facts recorded by neutral observers shed light on the facts. Former Chief Justice of Pakistan, Hamoodur Rehman's article ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ published in Supreme Court's Journal Section of the All-Pakistan Legal Decisions (referred to by lawyers and Courts of Pakistan as) i.e., PLD 1976 S.C.(Pak) Vol. XXXVIII-Page 215-226 not only provides a clue but also an insight into proper understanding and background.
He writes that as far back as July 14, 1971, Morning News, Karachi, carried the banner headline on the front page captioned, ‘India prepares blueprint for war on Pakistan’ quoting late Mr Yehia Syed's report from London.
Yehia Syed's article titled ‘India fought the war on her published plan’ also carried by Morning News, Karachi (March 4, 1972), mentions what was known as India's Subramaniam Plan – no more a secret – details of which were released in advance in London, according to which it was then the most opportune time to launch an attack and like a ripe plum (referring to East Pakistan) it would fall into India’s lap.
The book 'The Role of Big Powers in the East Pakistan Crisis of 1971' by Bengali author Matiur Rahman, published by Dr Razia Rahman (65 Alfriston Road London SW11) and reviewed in The Muslim World League Journal, Makah Al-Mukarramah Vol. 12, No. 4 Rabi al Thani/January 1985 (page 64) is highly revealing.
Two more books by the same author, 'Bangladesh Today-An Indictment and a Lament' (1978 Edition) and 'Second Thoughts on Bangla Desh' (1979 Edition) shed ample light on the subject. It is equally tragic that these erudite and established authors have also focused on the fact that the irate insurgents of Mukti Bahini, in a spate of fury massacred Pakistani troops as well as non-Bengali citizens and committed unspeakable acts like rape and mutilation of dead bodies.
Mr H.N. Akhtar, in his article captioned ‘After the Cassandras have spoken’ regarding the tragedy of 1971, has referred to a book, 'Pakistan Cut to Size' reveals that Pakistan had fallen victim to a Communist and Zionist-inspired conspiracy.
The Jewish Chronicle, London, disclosed that Major General Jacob who was second in command of the Indian forces in East Pakistan was a Jew. He was related to the famous family of the late Dr I. S. Fox who was Chairman of the British Zionist Federation. The paper said that there were a number of Jewish officers in Indian armed forces, among the better known were Rear Admiral Benjamin Abraham Samson and Naval Judge Advocate Elliz Thirad.
Sarmila Bose, in her book 'Dead Reckoning', quoting Home Ministry of Bangladesh in 1972 that there were reports of only about 2,000 complaints of death due to military actions while the Mukti Bahini slaughtered thousands of Pakistani troops and non-Bengali civilians.
If anyone needs to be tried, it is India, which had been planning the dismemberment of East Pakistan for ages. Indian secret agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) was created with the main task of destabilising Pakistan
Even the Sylhet born, educated in Dhaka and Exeter Universities, Sociology Professor, Dr Abdul Mu’min Chowdhury, a Bengali nationalist who actively participated in the separatist cause, came out with eye witness accounts.
He states that the Pakistani army carried out a limited counter-insurgency, not genocide in East Pakistan. Dr Chowdhury spoke out in 1996 to tell the true story of what went on during that war. In his book 'Behind the Myth of 3 Million', he dispels many conjectural assumptions about Pakistani security forces’ action, stating that the allegations against Pakistan were entirely cooked up and the actual death toll was much lower than the falsely fabricated three million figure; and in order to arrive at this conclusion, Dr Chowdhury cites an extensive range of sources.
The sources maintain that the number of East Pakistanis who supported independence and were subsequently killed during the war was to glorify the movement against West Pakistan, but evidence points otherwise. The total strength of the Pakistant army was 40,000 in East Pakistan out of which 237 officers, 136 JCOs and 3,559 other ranks were killed and wounded in the counter insurgency operations between March to November 1971.
It is not humanly possible to commit that level of genocide as being accused on Pakistan Army both for tactical and humanitarian reasons, the sources added. Even Colonel Akbar Hussain, a decorated ‘Mukti Juddha’ and Cabinet Member under both General Ziaur Rehman and Mrs Khaleda Zia, told the National Assembly of Bangladesh during a debate on June 15, 1993 that the Awami League had created the myth of ‘three million killed’.
So much for the allegation of genocide of 3 million Bengalis.
Let us also delve deeper into the myth of Awami league’s majority in the 1970 elections and its overwhelming representation of the Bengalis.
Election Commission of Pakistan documents reveal that the voter turnout in East Pakistan was 56% while the disinterested electorate in East Pakistan comprised 44%.
Of the overall votes cast in East Pakistan, Awami League actually received only 42% of the votes. The question therefore arises how could only a 42% mandate achieve independence without external (Indian) support? If this was not true and a sizable population of the Bengalis did not support the idea of secession, and continued to regard the Pakistan regime as the legitimate government, why would Sheikh Hasina Wajid’s government now be putting its own citizens to trial for ‘treason’ and sending them to the gallows? What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
If the rebels were fighting for a ‘noble’ cause for freedom, then in the same vein, the cause of those Bengalis supporting the regime was equally ‘noble’ as it was to sustain the unity and integrity of Pakistan, they had sworn allegiance to.
If anyone needs to be tried, it is India, which had been planning the dismemberment of East Pakistan for ages. Indian secret agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) was created with the main task of destabilising Pakistan. The deliberate intervention of India in fomenting political trouble in Pakistan was in direct contravention to Article-4 of the UN Charter.
Indira Gandhi had triumphantly claimed to have taken revenge for 700 years of Muslim rule over Hindus and at the fall of Dhaka, had declared “today we have sunk the Two Nation theory of Pakistan in the Bay of Bengal”.
More evidence was provided by the confessional statement of Indian role in the mutilation of Pakistan by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Bangladesh in June 2015, which is self-indicting under international law. India had planned to exploit the discord between two wings; hence, the drama of its derelict aircraft Fokker F-27 ‘Ganga’ hijacking on January 30, 1971 was orchestrated to ban Pakistan's over flights and deny logistic support to the east from the west.
Indian intervention has been admitted by Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw in his memoirs. Manekshaw discloses his meeting with India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in April 1971, when she divulged her intent of dismembering East Pakistan and asked Manekshaw for the impending invasion of East Pakistan. FM Manekshaw requested for 7-9 months preparation time which was granted by PM Indira Gandhi.
Just when the Pakistan Army was on the verge of having controlled the armed insurgency by Bengali Mukti Bahini, being supported by India, the Indian armed forces initiated war in East Pakistan on November 21 1971 on the pretext of Bengali refugees crossing into India. If this principle is to be applied today by other states as well; should Pakistan invade Afghanistan or Europe overrun Syria?
Now let us look at some ground realities regarding Pak-Bangladesh relations.
Pakistan and Bangladesh can either be friends or stay indifferent to each other. One thousand miles of hostile Indian territory still separates Pakistan and Bangladesh and it is not physically possible for Pakistan to interfere in Bangladesh affairs or vice versa. Bangladesh is enveloped by India, which foments troubles like water issues, border skirmishes, smuggling, drug trafficking and numerous other problems. It would be prudent for Bangladesh to resolve its problems with India rather than act as a proxy for India and hurl insults and accusations at Pakistan, which tends to gain nothing from the instability of Bangladesh.
True that Pakistan bears some blame for pre 1971 atrocities and omissions but the grievances of economic poverty disparities, low representation of Bengalis in administration, industry and armed forces etc. were related to inter-province disparities and were not peculiar to East Pakistan and persist even today.
Currently, Pakistan has approximately 2 million illegal Bengalis on its soil but has never made them a scapegoat for the turmoil in Karachi or its war against terror – nor are they living in squalor in specific camps – while Bangladesh is busy profiling Pakistani visitors and workers and harassing them with a vengeance.
If the genocide claim by Bangladesh is to be taken as correct then from March 25 to December 16, 1971 (257 days), the causality rate on the average comes to 11,000 per day, which is highly questionable as no neutral source ever reported or confirmed the atrocities at this mass scale.
Apparently, Sheikh Hasina Wajid has banned any discussion or questioning the Awami League version of the alleged genocide.
If Hasina ponders even for a moment, she should pragmatically take cognizance of the fact that no distinction can be made between the liberation fighters, innocent Bengalis, and how many were killed by the Indians, Mukti Bahini or Pakistanis. By persistently blackballing Pakistan, the atrocities will not go away as they were not one sided.
One community that continues to suffer for the last fifty-one years in the aftermath of the 1971 War is the non-Bengalis or Bihari community.
A generic term ‘Bihari’ was used for all non-Bengalis, including the West Pakistani bureaucrats as well as the non-Bengali armed forces personnel, who became targets when the rebellion started. The magnitude of anti-Bihari attacks by Bengalis throughout the war is contested. International estimates vary from 20,000 to 200,000.
In June 1971, Bihari representatives put forward a figure of 500,000 Biharis killed by Bengalis. On March 26, the Independence of Bangladesh was declared. Biharis supported the Pakistan Armed Forces during this period, joining armed paramilitary groups such as Al-Shams, Razakars and Al-Badr, more to protect themselves and to uphold the rule of law.
After the capitulation of the Pakistan Army, the Biharis were set upon by irate Bengalis who wanted to punish the Biharis for supporting the Pakistan Army. Some escaped to West Pakistan via Nepal or Myanmar. Ultimately, the remaining were herded into makeshift concentration camps, stripped of their identity, nationality and possessions.
According to historian Partha Ghosh, approximately 470,000 Biharis out of a total of 700,000 Biharis opted to be repatriated to Pakistan through the International Red Cross. Despite efforts of numerous international social workers and human rights activists, in a 1974 agreement, Pakistan accepted only 170,000 Bihari refugees; however, the repatriation process has since stalled.
The time has come for both Pakistan and Bangladesh to do some soul searching and move forward, that would be the best closure rather than continuing to rake old wounds
Today 250,000 Biharis remain stranded in Bangladesh. Neither Pakistan will accept them, nor does Bangladesh want them. Unable to claim United Nations refugee status due to a number of technicalities, this ethnic and linguistic minority is legally stateless, ‘officially dead’. Their only ‘crime’ was that they supported a united Pakistan.
The time has come for both Pakistan and Bangladesh to do some soul searching and move forward, that would be the best closure rather than continuing to rake old wounds.
Having undertaken visits to Bangladesh and hosted Bengali friends in Islamabad, this scribe has reached the conclusion that sane elements reside on both sides, who are willing to move forward. Bangladesh has done well economically, and Pakistan is a well-wisher.
We should not let history remain a source of rancor and rather than nurture bitterness, we should be able to let go of the hate and animosity. The people of Bangladesh and Pakistan deserve to be closely associated in better relations. There is no need for forming alliances against any other neighbour but instead the coalition should be to combat poverty, terrorism, disease and illiteracy.
After all SAARC was the brainchild of former Bangladesh President General Ziaur Rahman but has not been allowed to progress because of neighborly hostilities. Lessons need to be drawn from other regional alliances like ASEAN, ECO, EU et-al, which have brought prosperity to its members.
Surely South Asia too needs the space to rise to the full potential of its respective states and thrive in peace and harmony.
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